Much like how eggs are the staple of breakfast, I’d argue that sandwiches are the national staple of lunch. That being the case, I’m constantly let down by almost every sandwich I’m presented with. With few exceptions, the general prowess with which sandwiches are made — on both the professional, and amateur level — is underwhelming at best. If you find yourself saying, “Shut up Glenn. I make a killer sandwich,” then okay, maybe you do. But keep reading anyway, because you might find some tweaks you could make to your technique. If, on the other hand, you’re saying to yourself, “Oooh, my sandwich game definitely needs some work,” then have no fear: I’m here to help.
The foundation of a great sandwich is the bread. I know that sounds like a painfully obvious thing to say, given that bread is the defining feature of a sandwich (open-faced or closed, without bread, you don’t have a sandwich), but this is not a millennial’s little league season, and nobody’s giving bread a trophy just for showing up. Every great sandwich I’ve ever had involved really good bread. The flavor/style of the bread matters in relation to the sandwich, but it should (whenever possible) be fresh and high quality. I think it should be relatively thick-sliced (between 1/2″-3/4″), and even if you don’t agree with that, know this: upon particularly thinly-sliced bread, a truly great sandwich has never been made.
To toast, or not to toast?
“Hey Glenn, should the bread be toasted?” Ah hah. This is a very important question, and it depends on some stuff. First and foremost, is preference. Toasted sandwich bread should be warm and moderately crisp, but you shouldn’t try to make a sandwich on toast.
Some sandwiches should be on toasted bread, but I’d argue that most are best on fresh bread, which leads us to the second thing: how fresh is the bread? I realize the world isn’t perfect, and most of us who don’t live in France do not buy fresh bread every day, but if you do buy some really good, fresh bread, you owe it to yourself to make a sandwich on it that day. I usually keep store-bought bread in my refrigerator, which significantly extends its life. This does make it a little dry and rigid after a few days, but pop it in the toaster, (or under the broiler) and that will bring it back to life.
The featured item
When it comes to any kind of dish/cuisine to have ever been created, the end result is ultimately going to be impacted by the quality of the raw ingredients, and at the end of the day, it’s hard to have a great roast beef sandwich if the roast beef is terrible. You can’t make chicken shit into chicken salad. Whatever the featured item is (usually a meat, like roast beef or smoked turkey, but vegetarian sandwiches can feature grilled mushrooms/eggplant or egg salad, etc.), the quality therein is of utmost importance. There are several brands of deli meat that make a fantastic product: Boars Head is probably the best widely available brand of deli meats, but depending on your location, you might be able to find more locally produced/distributed brands of quality (lookin’ your way Kelly Eisenberg of Chicago, IL). When in doubt, go to the deli counter at your local grocery, ask their input if you’re unsure, and have them slice your choice for you, fresh. Either way, it’s not 1970 anymore: Oscar Meyer will not ever have a hand in a great sandwich.
The quality and form of the complimentary components are almost as important as that of the featured item. Is the tomato ripe, delicious, and appropriately sliced? Is the slice of pickle from a perfectly pickled cucumber? Is the lettuce crisp, cold and flavorful? These are all things that matter when crafting a great sandwich. The way these toppings have been sliced can matter a lot also. Too thick of an onion slice can overpower anything around it, and there are times and places for lettuce in both shredded and leaf forms.
Condiments matter as well. A good dijon mustard can make a good corned beef sandwich a great one, but a poorly-made Russian dressing can destroy an otherwise superior reuben. As for cheese, (while not always necessary for a sandwich), it should always be at least partially melted (and this is where the warmed bread I encouraged earlier plays a vital role) but more on that later.
Finally, we come to the part that goes most overlooked. As the title of my blog indicates, everything you cook should be cooked with love, and what that means when making a sandwich is being conscious of how the construction of it will impact the experience of eating it. The order of the stack of a sandwich matters so much more than most people realize, and generally speaking, it starts with the texture and consistency of each component. For example, smooth and slippery things should be kept apart from one another, unless there’s something soft to anchor it on the other side: if you put avocado slices between slices of cucumber and ham, that avo’ is gonna shoot out the other end as soon as you take a bite. However, if you put something with traction — let’s say shaved onions — between the avocado and ham, the rigid surface of the thin strands of onion will provide the traction to hold it in place.
It’s also important to remember that nobody’s front teeth are so sharp that they will cut a perfect incision through the sandwich without applying at least a little pressure to the area of the sandwich close to the bite site, thereby squeezing the contents out the other end. Therefore you need to be conscious of how the sandwich will hold together as it’s being eaten (see the bit below on broilers 👇). While a strategically placed toothpick or skewer can help immensely with this, the value of the role that cheese can play in keeping a sandwich intact is frequently and irresponsibly ignored…
Choosing the right cheese can seal the tremendous or horrendous fate of a particular sammy. Since nobody likes cold, solid slices of processed deli cheese, if cheese is on a sandwich it should be melted — unless it’s a naturally soft cheese (I love brie cheese, but it’s so high in fat that melting it causes it to break and become greasy). In the case of melted cheese, it should be the last layer atop a sandwich, at least before the top piece of bread (but in the event of an open-face, cheese should be the top layer). This is important, as it allows for the cheese to melt down onto the interior components, which helps keep it all together throughout the eating process — particularly as the cheese cools down after having been served, and it re-solidifies. This brings us to an often over-looked piece of sandwich-making equipment…
As I mentioned earlier, when making a sando at home, I’d encourage you to play around with your broiler (almost all home ovens have a broiler function). And while we’re on the subject, broiling is when you cook something with a direct heat source from above. I know it sounds like boiling, but the two cooking techniques could not be more dissimilar (if you need further clarification, check out this post that clarifies basic cooking techniques). Broiling is a great way to toast a slice of bread on one side, and then melt a slice of cheese on the other. If you’re making a hot sandwich, certain things that don’t stand up well to heat, like lettuce and avocado should be added after the heating process.
You might be thinking to yourself “yeah Glenn, or I could just pop bread in the toaster.” Sure, but toasters affect both sides of a slice of bread. Toasting one side of a slice of bread but not the other can help a lot when it comes to structural integrity. Biting into the crispy side of a bread slice of which the other side is soft, can help hold the sandwich together while being bitten into: as your teeth press the bread into the sandwich, the soft-ness of the un-toasted side will give, and mould around firmer elements in the sandwich, keeping them in place throughout its consumption.
Layering and Construction, as it Relates to Texture
The last subject I’ll bring up has to do with the actual mouth feel of a sandwich, which is another thing I don’t think enough people give proper attention. It’s important to consider your textures in terms of mouth-feel. If you’re putting lettuce and onion on the same sandwich, be aware of how thick the the onion is sliced and how fibrous the lettuce is. If both are particularly crunchy, maybe put the onion on the bottom of the sandwich and the lettuce on the top, letting the softness of the main item disrupt the double crunch.
Nobody wants to bite into a super dense sandwich with little-to-no variety in texture. There should be a little give when bitten into, but it shouldn’t fall apart either.
When layering slices of deli meat onto a sandwich, most people just lay them down flat. But if you stack 4-5 slices of deli meat flat on top of one another, they stick flush to one another, and you basically will have formed a thick, solid piece of meat. That’s not going to be ideal for the teeth or the mouth feel experience of the one eating it. Instead of laying meat slices down flat, loosely fold them two or three times as you lay them onto the sandwich. This introduces little pockets of air in the meat layer, which makes it much more pleasant on the mouth. They don’t need to be symmetrical folds — in fact, I prefer it when they aren’t — but you do need to make sure the over-all thickness of the meat layer is consistent across the surface of the sando. In other words, you don’t want a sandwich to be 3″ thick on one side, and 1.5″ on the other (and you don’t want one bite to be full of meat and another to be generally devoid of it).
Speaking of folding meat, this needs to be done, as most deli meat slices aren’t in the shape of the bread. Fold your meats (and manipulate the dimensions of other toppings when it possible/convenient) to fit the dimension of the bread. I personally like the contents of a sandwich to hang over the edges of the bread just a bit (like, a quarter of an inch of overhang is perfect!), but I understand that some people like the bread to act as the strict perimeter for everything in their sandwich.
I know this seems like a lot to consider for just making lunch, but it’s actually not. All it takes is you doing what you were probably already doing, just maybe with a little more time, a little more attention, and with a little more love.
2 thoughts on “The Art of Crafting a Sandwich”
Love this post as much as I love a good sandwich. Thanks for the advice on anchoring the slippery layers with frictiony layers. I have an almost ripe avocado and I will try that. Have you noticed that it gets harder and harder to find a great restaurant sandwich? Maybe that’s partly because we have no real delis in my neck of the woods, and the pandemic put an end to our neighborhood Greek diner. Great eggplant Parmesan sub, among other sandwiches.
I totally agree with you about folding lovely paper thin slices of deli meats (and cheeses), but any tricks for getting the same effect when your meat layer is the last of last night’s grilled steak or Friday’s Shabbat chicken? I can only home slice to about an eighth of an inch at best.
However, I must disagree on one point: I do not want my cheese melted on 99% of my sandwiches. You may have explained why so many restaurants do that—if it helps keep the other layers in place and the top slice of bread or roll more firmly affixed—but it’s not my preference. Give me some paper thin shaves of cheese (especially Swiss from the deli counter) with their own definable flavor rather than something that’s melted down through the other layers. Obviously not true when melted cheese is a primary element .
Otherwise, I think I’m a darn good sandwich maker, and you’ve given me a few tricks to become even better one. Thanks and love,
Hmm… as it pertains to non deli-designated meats (leftover steak, chicken, etc.), I find that if you can’t thin-slice it to your liking, it’s best to give it a rough chop; and in those cases, I will always try to have the meat and the sandwich be hot. 🙂